Ever wonder if you could get away with using humor in a presentation? Afraid being funny may make you appear less professional? Do you feel as if you were born without a funny-gene? Worry no more because you can now be fun and funny when public speaking.
“A sense of humor is part of the art of leadership, of getting along with people, of getting things done” – Dwight D. Eisenhower
You can be funny and professional, without trying to be a comic
The business world is filled with people who have embraced humor to increase their presence, improve presentations and to become a better leader. The former CEO of Twitter, Dick Costello, has credited his practice of improvisational comedy with much of his success. Business-guru, Dale Carnegie used humor in his business books. Steve Jobs credits a sense of humor as a foundation for his relationship with Steve Wozniak. (That last one I saw on a refrigerator magnet and I haven’t source checked it, so I hope it’s true.)
“Look your audience straight in the eyes, and begin to talk as if every one of them owed you money.” – Dale Carnegie
Why your next presentation should be a little bit funnier
Studies have shown that adding humor to a presentation can connect you with your audience, help them to remember key points, and add levity to a heavy subject. It makes you more likable, appear self-confident, and for better or worse, more attractive.
“If you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh, otherwise they’ll kill you.” – Oscar Wilde
What is humor?
Peer-reviewed academic research on humor describes the intricacies and structure of jokes and humor. I found it, and I read it so that you won’t have to. Here’s the humorless definition of humor. “Humor is viewed as a cognitive experience involving an internal redefining of sociocultural reality and resulting in a “mirthful” state of mind, of which laughter is a possible external display.” 
“Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested, and the frog dies of it.” – E. B. White
Although the research lacked humor, there a couple of things worth understanding if you want to be funny.
First, humor requires three essential players. It starts with someone who says or does something humorous. Then there must be an audience to receive the message and an object or target that is to be made fun of. The target can be a person or a group of people. It can also be an object such as a computer, a belief, or a dog believing he can use a computer. If you make your audience the target, you will be teasing them. If you make yourself the target, you will be self-deprecating. If you pick on people based on identity, then you will be in trouble. Don’t do that. I’ll cover that a bit later.
The key idea here is that the audience is the only one who decides if the message is funny or not. The funny moment is a lot like Schrodinger’s cat. You won’t know if it’s humorful or humorless until observed and enjoyed, or irreversibly mocked.
If it gets laughs, it’s funny. Rachel Dratch
Second, there are three main theories of what is humorous: Relief, incongruity, and superiority.
Relief is humor created by the release of nervous energy or tension. Some humorists build suspense in their talk and then use a joke or punchline to release the pressure. In this instance, humor is a release value for psychological tension. Want to test-drive relief based humor for yourself? First, find a baby. Second, make sure the parents are okay with you messing with their baby. Third, put your hands up in front of your eyes. To the baby, you just disappeared. The baby is now experiencing tension. Drop your hands and say, “peek-a-boo.” Voila. To the baby, you’ve reappeared, tension is released, and super-cute baby giggles follow.
Peek-a-boo does not work so well during a business presentation. But an icebreaker does. Sir Ken Robinson, used this technique at the start of his widely praised TED Talk, Do Schools Kill Creativity. Immediately after taking the stage, he said, “It’s been great, hasn’t it? I’ve been blown away by the whole thing. In fact, I’m leaving.”
Incongruity is one of the most common forms of presentation humor. It occurs when we are surprised, or we experience the unexpected in a nonthreatening way. Humorists often use misdirection to surprise you with an unexpected twist.
“For a list of all the ways technology has failed to improve the quality of life, please press three.” — Alice Kahn, American writer
Establishing a pattern or a norm is essential to creating incongruity. We like patterns and we can identify them quickly. The rule-of-three is a fantastic approach to build simple patterns. Besides, threes are magical. There are three wise men, three musketeers, and three stooges; just to name three. The rule-of-three is also a fantastic, and an overused rhetorical device in speechmaking. “Friends, Romans, and countrymen.” “Veni, Vidi, Vici.” The first occurrence may be chance. The second possibly a coincidence. But the third is a pattern. To create humor, we must break the pattern. Instead of an obvious repetition, the third choice must head in an unexpected direction. It’s as easy, as 1, 2, 4.
“My formula for success is to rise early, work late, and strike oil.” – J.P. Getty
Jokes and comedy based on superiority are a form of ridicule. It casts the target as inferior and the audience as superior. When done with a deft touch, it can be successful and funny. Some classes of people such as affluent politicians, celebrities, and business leaders are easy targets. When done lovingly, other groups like teenagers and end-users are also fair game.
“Big Data is like teenage sex: – Everyone talks about it. Nobody really knows how to do it. Everyone thinks everyone else is doing it. So, everyone claims they are doing it.” – Dan Ariely
Self-deprecating humor is also a form of superiority-humor since the speaker is making fun of themself. However, done poorly, poking fun at people, their identity, or their beliefs will come across as arrogant, prejudice, or worse.
Here’s a model that can help you stay out of trouble. Peter McGraw, a leading researcher at the Humor Research Lab at the Univerisity of Colorado (I swear I did not make that up), has provided a theory of humor called, Benign Violation. Based on the group’s studies, humor exists when a violation of a norm occurs and its impact is benign. A violation of a norm alone is not funny (e.g. somebody trips on a curb and falls down). Purely benign is also not funny (e.g., somebody goes about their day and doesn’t trip or stumble). But a benign-violation (somebody trips on a curb, falls but doesn’t get hurt) is funny. Watch his Ted Talk, it’s good.
How to add humor to your presentation
Focus on fun and familiar over funny. Start by permitting yourself to add a few fun moments into your next meeting, talk, or presentation. But don’t try to be jokey. Leave the “dad jokes,” puns, and bawdy humor for the comedians. Start with stories, anecdotes, and real-life experiences you already love to tell. By starting with what is familiar, you will come across as honest, humble, and fun. Luckily, just about any story can be used to bring character to a presentation. During a Gartner presentation that I gave about building interpersonal trust in the workplace, I told a story about how a phone call from a kindly older neighbor had my mother in tears. I was eight years old, and the neighbor had told my mother that she had overheard me in the yard cursing. Twenty years later, I was telling my mother how that moment had forever tempered my urge to use foul language. My mother laughed, a little too hard and then confessed that the phone call never happened. Neither did she shed tears of motherly shame, and only she overheard backyard obscenities. I still trust my mom because of her intentions and in spite of her deceit.
This story highlights another rule. Keep your stories short and leave the funny bit (the punchline) until the very end. In my story, the deception was revealed only at the last moment
Here are a few other ways you can introduce humor into your next presentation.
- Keep it relevant. Ensure humor is relevant for your audience and the talk. The goal is not humor; the goal is a persuasive talk. Be sure your humor supports your persuasion and conveys your key messages.
- Funny images. I recently saw a workplace hazard sign that said, “In case of fire, exit the building before tweeting about it.” That’s funny. When you use images, be sure to give credit and use copyright-free images or pay for their use.
- Exaggeration and hyperbole. Emphasize an idea to the point of impossibility. Do not aim for accuracy, believability, or rationality. Apple described the iPad as a means to let people “Choreograph a recital. Explore the North Pole. Organize a food drive. And take their entire songbook caroling.”
- Acronyms. During a recent presentation on storytelling, I referred to “business-speak” as something that is better called B.S.. Nothing more needed to be said.
Here are a few words of caution to help you remain regret-free.
- Avoid telling jokes and stick to telling fun stories. When you are done reading this post, go and Google Artificial Intelligence jokes. They are not funny. Neither are Help Desk jokes or Quantum Computing jokes. If you tell a bad joke, your audience will turn on you. Studies have shown that humor that fails to be funny, can negatively impact your credibility. However, if a fun story doesn’t get a laugh, don’t worry, don’t pause, and just move on. Your audience will never be the wiser, and your credibility will remain intact. They will assume that was just a story.
- Don’t try to emulate your favorite comedians. Their jokes have been honed and refined for their style and their audiences, not yours. What works for them will not work for you.
- I should not have to say it, but I feel like I must say it. Stay away from humor related to religion, politics, race, and sex. In other words, avoid commenting on people’s mistakes, beliefs, identity, and cultural taboos.
“Laughing at our mistakes can lengthen our own life. Laughing at someone else’s can shorten it.”– Cullen Hightower
Go forth and funny
Now it’s your turn. Test new ideas and old stories in low-risk environments. Begin with friends and family. Take your ideas for a test-run at networking events and break room chatter. Hone your skills and start adding the funny stuff into your meetings, speeches, and presentations. Have fun, tell fun stories, and your audience will have fun with you.
As always, share your thoughts. What did I miss? What works for you? Any reading recommendations?
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